Red Bark
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The Journal of the Walk, Saturday, October 8th

Yesterday, I saw the end of the world.

I had been walking several days without rest when I came upon a small village of four or five buildings. Some of the streets were laid out in a strange way, some dead-ending suddenly, some continuing far off into the horizon, others going straight up into the sky. The buildings were no less strange. Some had large sections of wall cut away, leaving the interiors open to the world. Some seemed to stretch into infinity. Only a small bit of the village looked the way most villages do.

The streets were completely empty, so I went to one of the houses and knocked on the door. A small middle-aged woman with mousy brown hair answered the door. I said who I was and asked if I could stay the night.

"You can come in," she said, "I was just putting on the soup."

She let me in and bade me sit by the fire in the center of the house, over which sat a bubbling cauldron of stew. Also sitting were a heavy-set man looking intently at the fire and two dirty-faced boys who stared at me with undisguised amazement. I asked about the village and its layout. The boys' eyes lit up.

"This is the place where the gods stopped building," she answered.

"God," the man interjected, not raising his gaze from the fire. If she heard him, she gave no indication.

"The world keeps on going, though. It just can't support the weight of creation. Creation just doesn't know what to do when it reaches this place. When my parents came here, I was a little girl. We were following a sign from the gods-"

"God," the man corrected again. The woman began to stir the stew.

"-which led us to this place. There were twelve families then. Even when we first came from the east, we knew that there was something off about this place. Trees hung down from fields in the sky. Mountains high as anything and thin as parchment ended suddenly. Rivers full of leaves that flowed like water. We thought it was odd, but we built anyway."

"It took us just a few days to build the houses. It couldn't have been more than a week when some started to stretch or disintegrate or change. Half of the families left immediately. They said this was a place of evil spirits and devils. One of the families went to the west, saying that we had not gone far enough, and that to the west laid to the realm of the spirits. We never saw them again."

"The ones who stayed in the strange houses began to change. I can tell you about it later, but it's not something to talk about during a meal," she said as she began to ladle the soup into bowls. The boys looked disappointed.

"After a few years, those of us who remained found out where the world was the world and where it wasn't. We worked out the edges of creation and planted the seeds of trees with red bark along the edges. Over time, the others got sick or went mad or just gave up and died. Now we're the only ones remaining."

I asked her why they didn't move somewhere else.

"They have not showed us the way. When the gods-"

"God."

"-show us the path, we shall follow it. Until the day they see fit to guide us, we wait and serve them as best we can. Amen."

"Amen," the man and boys repeated in unison, their heads bowed.

The soup was ready then, and we all ate. The rest of the night passed quickly and without incident. At daybreak, I thanked the family and gave them a gold coin. I set out through a forest road, making sure to to keep a red-barked tree in sight at all times. It is only now, taking a rest, that I realize that the woman never said what happened to the changed people. I can only hope I never learn.

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